MRI: A snapshot of brain damage and recovery

This is for those that missed my #SoapboxScienceNL talk and wondered what I talked about. I’ve literally transcribed it here for you, so you’re welcome!

Don’t forget to join in for the remaining talks, details here! In the meantime, here’s my talk!

I study the brain, and as a neuroscientist, I believe that the brain is the important organ in the body. Just like all the other organs in the body, the brain can get injured or damaged. In fact, as a person gets older, brain cells die and find it increasingly difficult to grow back. When a person has an illness that affects the brain, this normal aging process of brain cells dying and finding it difficult to grow back is sped up and their brain starts to look and work like it is way older than it actually is.

When we suspect brain damage, there are two main questions we ask:

  1. Where is the damage and how bad it is?
  2. Over time and/or with treatment, is the damage staying the same, getting worse, or is the brain recovering?

To answer these questions, we use a tool called MRI – Magnetic Resonance Imaging. It’s a tool that allows us to take pictures of the brain without having to cut open the skull as seen in Image A, which is a slice through the human brain viewed from the top. We can only get that image from a non-living person, but MRI can be used while a person is still alive. It uses very powerful magnets, radio waves – the same waves that our cell phones use – and a computer system to produce very high-quality images of the brain in grayscale.

Image B is an MRI of an average brain, with the cells tightly packed and nothing looking out of place. In comparison, Image C is an MRI of a damaged brain. You can see more space between the edges of the brain tissue compared to Image B. That is an indicator of loss of cells. You can also see some bright dots towards the midline. Those are indicators of inflammation or injury.

At my lab – The Recovery and Performance Lab, as part of our research, we collect and analyze MRI to achieve the following:

  1. Measure the extent of brain damage
  2. Measure how good the therapies we test out are at helping the brain recover or slow down the ongoing damage
  3. Compare brain damage or recovery to hand and leg function to see if there’s a relationship

They say pictures are worth a thousand words, but what about MRIs? They are really worth a thousand words or numbers, depending on what roles you get with the images. 

Thank you for coming to my Soapbox Science talk!

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